Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton set up Memphis label Stax Records in 1957 with one purpose – to release great music from local African-American artists. This was a risky enough move at the time. In Memphis, black people were treated horrifically, excluded from society, met with violence in the face of resistance. Stax arrived in the midst of the civil rights movement, and instead of sitting on the sidelines, it tried to instigate change. The historical significance of what it achieved can’t be understated.
“Racism was so rampant that the black and white artists, who were like family inside the doors of Stax Records, were not able to stay in the same hotels, eat in the same restaurants, and even go to the zoo on the same day,” says Tim Sampson, communications director of the Soulsville Foundation, the nonprofit organisation running the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Stax Music Academy. Today, Stax’s legacy is documented through the academy and museum – but it took a long way to get here.
In 1967, Stax put together the first European tour of its artists. Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and Eddie Floyd were amongst those on the road, visiting countries and cities they’d never seen before. While Memphis remained a hotbed of institutional racism, Stax’s artists were treated like heroes. Many attribute the tour with the moment soul finally broke through worldwide.
50 years on, students in the Stax Music Academy are going to follow in the footsteps of Redding and co. Celebrating the original tour’s 50th anniversary, Stax alumni are visiting Manchester, London, Bordeaux and many more cities, recreating history while starting careers of their own.
NME spoke to Sampson about the original tour, the history of Stax Records, and the steps it’s taking to continue its legacy.
Get tickets for the Stax tour here – dates below.
July 9 Manchester, Band on the Wall
11 Cahors, France, Cahors Blues Festival
13 Bordeaux, France, Relâche Music Festival
15 London, Kings Place
16 Hitchin, Town Hall
17 Bristol, Rivertown at Colston Hall
18 Milton Keynes, The Stables
21-22 Gateshead, SummerTyne Festival
In your opinion, how revolutionary was the original Stax tour in 1967?
“The 1967 Stax/Volt Tour was revolutionary in that it was really one of the first times all of the singers and musicians got to perform together on stage instead of in the recording studio. Other than Otis Redding, who had traveled to the United Kingdom the previous year in 1966, none of the others had been to Europe and had no idea how popular their music was, so it came as a shock to them when they were all treated with great respect, both black and white, and surprised to find out how enthusiastic the white European fans were. They just didn’t have any idea. I think it emboldened them to be even more creative once back in Memphis. We still hear from people all the time who were at those original 1967 concerts and have never forgotten them, like it was a holy grail experience for them.”
What values did Stax stand for when it was established?
“Stax was a very small, mom-and-pop label started by Jim Stewart and soon joined be his sister Estelle Axton. They just wanted to be in the music business because they loved it and they just wanted to make good music. They didn’t care about colour or class or anything like that. I think they almost accidentally went into the entire project with a nod to authenticity, because they weren’t polished like the Motown producers. They just wanted the artists to be themselves and genuine. They wanted young people to have the opportunity and support to make it. I think that’s what made Stax so special.”
And have those values changed at all?
“Not really. We use that legacy of giving young people opportunity every day the Stax Music Academy and our Soulsville Charter School, a university prep school. We always try to keep that legacy front and centre.”
Memphis continues to experience high rates of poverty. How do you spread the word about local kids being able to join the academy?
“We recruit kids through the Shelby County Schools system, through churches, community centres, and at our large performances. We try to target the most underserved children, but we’re not limited to that. We also have around 20-25 students at any given time who attend our Soulsville Charter School but also audition for and attend the Stax Music Academy. We have added audio and engineering classes so we can serve kids who aren’t as musically or vocally talented, and we have waitings lists now for those. They’re producing records and working sound at our live events. We are also adding classes for beginners starting this fall.”
How many of the 4,000+ former Stax Academy students have gone on to have successful music careers?
“Our intention is to simply prepare the students for college and any field of study they wish to pursue, but we do get them ready for a higher education in music if they want to. Some of them now are working as record producers, some are session players, some are working in the music business in digital music distribution. One of our graduates, Kris Thomas, made the top 10 on the television show The Voice and he is now lead singer in the band at B.B. King’s Blues Club in Orlando, Florida. Another former student, Kameron Whalum, is Bruno Mars’ trombone players.”
When did plans for the European tour start and how much of a challenge has it been to make it happen?
“We have always kind of been planning for a European Tour but this plan became real with some friends and supporters in England, David Nicholson and Heather Hendren. They have been promoting Memphis and Stax professionally for years and have been as enthusiastic about the academy as we are. They decided to make this happen and now all sorts of people have gotten on board to support us. It is a tremendous challenge in that this will be the first trip outside the United States for all these students, except one, and our schedule is going to be hectic. When traveling with 12 teenagers there are always issues that come up! But we have taken students in the past to Australia, Berlin, Italy, New York City, Washington and other places so we know a little about the process.”
What’s it like first hand to see kids being given this kind of an opportunity? How excited are they all?
“It absolutely changes everyone’s lives – the kids, their instructors on the trip, myself. You see a child change overnight when they discover there is more to life than their own city. They are fascinated by other cultures. They feel such a stronger desire to be successful because they want to travel more. Their self esteem is boosted beyond belief when the audience reacts to them so positively. They learn so much more about life when they travel than they do when at home. It is nothing short of amazing.”